Cleveland Police Officer Acquitted – Where Was the Jury?

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Officer Michael Brelo, a Cleveland Police Officer, was acquitted on charges of voluntary man slaughter. He stood trial for his role in the death of an unarmed couple in Cleveland, Ohio back in November of 2012.

The, nationally-covered case out of Cleveland, Ohio, involves the death two African American individuals and the Cleveland police force. Officer Brelo went before a court to determine whether his decisions resulted in the deaths of two suspects. These suspects were later found to have been unarmed.


The Background

The case began on November 29, 2012, when police tried pulling over a Chevy Malibu for a turning signal violation. The driver, 43-year old Timothy Russell and his passenger, 30-year old Melissa Williams were both in the car.

Russell tried getting away from the officer and the car backfired.  Thinking the backfire was the sound of gun shots, officers pursued with force. Almost 62 police cars across the city of Cleveland followed in pursuit of Russell and Williams.

The chase ended just before 11pm, in the staff parking lot of Heritage Middle School, in East Cleveland, when the police penned the car in the lot. There, 13 officers opened fire, shooting at least 137 rounds into the vehicle. Officer Michael Brelo, a seven-year veteran, faced charges for jumping onto the hood of the car, and continuing to shoot 15 rounds into the vehicle. Prosecutors claimed that by this time, the threat was over. However, Brelo was the only one to continue shooting.

The Verdict – Not Guilty

On Saturday, May 23, the ruling came back, acquitting Officer Brelo of voluntary manslaughter and felonious assault charges. Many have been quick to jump on the court’s decision as a miscarriage of justice, and Cleveland has been the site of rioting since the verdict came down. However, there are several elements of the court’s decision that need to be fully fanned out to be understood completely.

Judge and No Jury

One thing that needs to be understood is why it was a judge making the decision, and not a jury.

Defendants in many criminal trials have a right to a jury. However, the defendant does not have to exercise this right. Defendants can choose to waive their right to trial by jury, and go for a bench trial. Bench trials don’t have a jury in the courtroom; there’s only a judge. The judge takes over the role of the jury. This means the judge now determines fact from fiction in addition to his or her typical role as a referee.

In this case, it was probably a wise move by the defendant  and his defense attorneys to waive his right to a jury trial. The Cleveland Police Officer’s actions were aggressive and, particularly in light of recent police conduct in Ferguson and Baltimore, likely to be unpopular. Jurors would be much more likely to weigh these factors into their decision of whether Officer Brelo was guilty, or not, whereas a judge would be more likely to ignore these perceptions of law enforcement, and focus solely on Officer Brelo’s conduct.

Keeping You Informed

In our next blog post, we’ll discuss the judge’s ruling that acquitted Officer Brelo of his charges. Judge John P. O’Donnell spent almost an hour explaining his decision before the court, in great detail, providing a rare glimpse into a judge’s mind in determining exactly what happened in a complex situation.

While this case happened outside the California border, it sheds light on court proceedings in criminal trials everywhere.

The Kavinoky Law Firm is proud to employ the best DUI Attorneys in Los Angeles. Our firm and attorneys pay close attention to each trial. The outcome and lessons from the Cleveland Police Officer’s trial are applicable to our clients.

John Devendorf
John Devendorf
John Devendorf is a California barred attorney and graduate of Seton Hall University School of Law. He writes on a range of legal topics including criminal law, immigration, and legal marketing. While he is not a member of The Kavinoky Law Firm, we share his legal insights on topics important to our clients.